As a mental health blogger, I don’t have to think twice over pouring my heart out about my own mental health challenges. But therapists are in a more delicate position.
On one hand, therapists might want to establish a sense of rapport by mentioning their personal experiences with problems their clients are confronting. On the other hand, they’re also concerned with maintaining their professional authority, and they certainly don’t want to suggest that their own mental health might affect their professional judgment.
As a result, therapists sometimes find themselves weighing the question: to share or not to share personal experiences, and if so, how much to share?
This isn’t an extensively researched topic, but the research that has been done suggests that when a psychotherapist shares their own experiences in moderation, it can help the therapeutic relationship.
In a 2016 doctoral dissertation, Samantha Kaufman did an experiment in which participants read descriptions of therapists working with clients on different problems like inattention, anxiety or depression. In some of the descriptions, the therapist disclosed that they had a disorder such as ADHD, anxiety or depression, while in others they did not.
People reading the descriptions perceived the therapists who disclosed their own mental health diagnoses as more empathetic. The disclosure didn’t influence the extent to which people saw a given therapist as an “expert.”
Drawing on this study design, a group of researchers from Southern Illinois University recently ran a study in which participants similarly read descriptions of therapists who disclosed or didn’t disclose their own mental health struggles. In this case, though, the researchers changed the amount of detail in which therapists self-disclosed. Specifically, therapists in the descriptions engaged in one of the following types of self-disclosure:
- None: The therapist provided no information about their own diagnosis
- Mild: The therapist mentioned their diagnosis with no other accompanying information
- Moderate: The therapist mentioned their diagnosis and a few of its main symptoms
- Extreme: The therapist described their diagnosis, its symptoms, and the affect it had on their personal life
After reading the descriptions, people were asked to rate each therapist, taking into account factors like how likable, sincere and empathetic the therapist appeared to be.
As it turned out, therapists who engaged in any type of disclosure received higher ratings on average than those who didn’t. But the highest ratings were given to therapists who engaged in a moderate amount of disclosure. In other words, sharing a basic description of a similar challenge they’ve encountered can make a therapist more relatable, but going into extensive personal detail isn’t necessarily helpful.
Of course, it’s impossible to turn this into a blanket rule for psychotherapy. Like many aspects of therapy, whether disclosure is a good idea is something that ultimately depends on the situation: who the therapist is, who the client is, and what the problem being discussed is. But this research does suggest that there are at least some cases where therapist self-disclosure contributes to the therapeutic process.